Seeing Like a Wonk

by zunguzungu

Everyone agrees that there are some basic problems with how the university system uses tenure to measure quality; using research as an evaluational metric for a job based on teaching, for example, might help produce a teaching profession less good, as a whole, at teaching. It also might not. This is a live debate, and not a simple one. Wouldn’t you prefer to learn neuroscience (or whatever) from someone who is an active participant in the field in which they teach, rather than a passive observer and regurgitator of other people‘s work? Education for doing benefits a great deal from teachers who do.

But as A. Lee Fritschler points out, this is simply not the debate that’s being had in public policy circles. As “quality” and “accountability” are becoming buzzwords in debates about education reform, what we are seeing is a widespread extension of the logic behind elementary and secondary accreditation into colleges and universities, the assumption that the academic community is not, itself, capable of determining and evaluating professional “quality”:

For elementary and secondary education it was decided years ago that government, mostly states, should decide what quality is in the schools over which they have responsibility. They developed standardized statewide tests to oversee and implement their quality standards. There are many today who would like to extend those ideas and processes to higher education. The mood in Washington seems to be about the same in this administration as in the last. The U.S. Department of Education is staffed by many individuals who were trained to or have worked in elementary and secondary ed. This might explain why the quality measures invented for those systems over the years are attractive to those pushing for higher ed reform in the Department today.

This is a partial explanation, I think, for why liberal bloggers like Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein are so maddeningly and consistently mis-guided when they talk about education reform, and why a deeply flawed project like Anya Kamenetz’ has gotten the hearts of the policy wonk twitterati aflutter (something that has left me scratching my head for some time). People like Klein and Yglesias might not be constitutionally hostile to the idea of critical thought — as so many of higher education’s critics are — but they’re consistent advocacy for the state’s ability and responsibility to oversee and govern leads them astray here. They are people armed with an ideological hammer, and when they see a crisis in higher ed — one that certainly exists — they rush forward to pound that nail.

But government is terrible at overseeing higher ed. I’m about as far from a Hayekian as its possible to be, but the opposite of that cult of small-government-free-enterprise-fetishism is not necessarily faith in the ability of government to solve every problem. Government is good at building trains and regulating the economy (or can be), but politicians that are beholden to majorities are terrible at protecting unpopular minorities (something the founders understood very, very well) and tenured professors have become an unpopular minority in at least one particular sense: the interests that drive this class of privileged and out-of-touch professionals are broadly seen to be in conflict with the virtuous masses who depend on them for the good of our children. They, it therefore follows, need to be accountable to us.

This goes far beyond the problem of populist politicians making decisions about education, however. It isn’t simply a problem of political subservience to a citizenry whose thinks about higher ed by reference to that one poli-sci professor who talked nonsense about America or (more likely) the garbage they read about what is happening to Our Children in the Godless Schools. Political subservience to the American citizenry is actually not, in sum, that big a problem in this country. The problem is that even well-intentioned state agencies — like their wonkish advocates — impose a sense of the problem that fits the kinds of solutions they are capable of providing. States, as James Scott reminds us (thanks kitabet!), “do not merely describe, observe, and map: they strive to shape a people and a landscape suitable these techniques of observation.” There is nothing innocent about the modes of evaluation that state-centric evaluators seek to employ, since the thing they like, above all, is clarity of evaluation: in seeking to evaluate quality, they define as quality things they can evaluate.

But as Fritschler points out, for example, language like this — from a “Lumina Foundation for Education report” — is vague in a very particular way:

We need a student centered higher education system — one that is flexible, accessible and accountable … one that supports success and ensures quality by fostering genuine learning…one that truly prepares students for work…

Fritschler is right to note that “[t]here are eight words (or phrases) in those three lines that defy definition in any meaningful or measurable way: student centered, flexible, accessible, accountable, success, quality, genuine learning and prepares for work” and goes to some length to demonstrate their vacuity. But what if the thing being measured changes when you measure it? What if “quality” is a thing which cannot be quantified, standardized, or measured without fundamentally interfering in the process of its production? As Fritschler puts it,

…adopting the K-12 processes in higher education makes little sense on several fronts. Why should one think that government officials would be better at judging quality in higher ed than are faculty? The K-12 model is increasingly held up as a solution to higher ed quality problems, although the latter has quite different goals and aspirations. Standardized testing does not fit well with the idea that higher ed should foster creativity, innovation and critical thinking. Whatever those terms might mean, it would seem they are not supported well by state or national standardized tests administered on a required or voluntary basis.

You do not, in short, foster creativity and innovation by imposing singular regimes of testing and evaluation, and the state cannot meaningfully intervene in higher education except by means of imposing and regulating through standardized uniformity. And “critical thinking” is a thing which cannot be standardized or evaluated, practically by definition. Now, it may be that these are not qualities we truly value in higher ed, and certainly people like Klein or Yglesias seem to believe that universities are incapable of teaching such qualities. They may even be right. But though I don’t think they are, that’s not really the point: the point is that making a university education into something that the government can effectively regulate will, necessarily, radically transform what it is (or can be).

Which is why “tenure” becomes the thing everyone outside the academy loves to hate. At its essence, the tenure system is an academic department’s ability to declare that a particular person’s work is of sufficiently high quality that they should be invested with the necessary professional protection to engage in it more or less indefinitely, the judgment by a scholarly professional’s peers that this person is basically the sort of person who can, on their own and without interference, define and innovate within their field, and because they are capable of doing so, they will benefit from being given the necessary job security to do so. As Fritschler points out, after all, getting tenure is the academy’s way of judging quality and making professionals accountable to review. But while people outside the academy — shielded from the task of having to actually judge whether scholarship is truly innovative, and often quite amenable to a consumerist sense of education, by which the student judges a teacher’s quality rather than the other way around — are quick to believe that professional quality can be evaluated from the outside, academic professionals are much more aware of how difficult and tricky it is to do so. Which is why the tenure system has evolved as it has; to again quote Fritschler, “one of the central paradoxes of higher education [is that] the more one attempts to define quality with measurable precision the more one realizes one cannot”:

This rather stubborn confounding point makes for high levels of discomfort outside the academy…the system is far from democratic and it is difficult for those outside academe to understand how it is done. Also, it is difficult at times for those of us in the system to feel comfortable in judging the quality of our peers, especially those outside our academic discipline. For example, as a social scientist I feel I have few if any qualifications to judge the work of biologists. I must rely within the university, as those outside of it do, on the professionalism and self-regulation of academic groupings within the university, in this case biologists. A high level of professional trust is what sustains us.

People outside the academy don’t like being told “trust us,” especially when it comes to Our Children. But while it is “tough to defend the current evaluation system in today’s populist environment,” you simply cannot put decisions about hiring, firing, and curriculum in the hands of anyone but professionals in the field without fundamentally changing how the system works. And when people like Ezra Klein — Liberal Blogger™ –don’t seem to get that, who can blame academics for feeling like a beleaguered minority?

When the founders built safeguards into our constitutional system to protect minorities from the will of majorities, they did so because they believed that populism had its pitfalls, and they believed that in such cases, constitutional restrictions of power — explicit limitations on what the state could do — could accomplish what investing the state with additional responsibilities could not. This can look like privilege; certainly, portraying state protections for minorities as unnecessary and scandalous privileges has become a central plank of conservative fear-mongering. But for all the unfairness of academic privilege — the fact that after having worked for poverty wages for the 7-10 years of grad school, having beaten out the dozens or hundreds of eminently qualified professionals applying for the same job, and having gone through an incredibly exhaustive six-year process of evaluation to achieve tenure, professors are invested with the right to continue doing their job for as long as they are judged to do it well — advocates of tenure reform seem to have little or no sense of how to solve the problems that abolishing tenure would create, or even that they exist. Which is why democratic oversight of education is such a tricky problem, and one which you should fear, above all, advocates of eliminating tenure coming from people who basically misunderstand or undervalue what is it that academia does.